The World Begins with Yes: Poems

Erica Jong. Red Hen Press, 2019. 403 pages. $16.95.

By Jay M. Pasachoff

Erica Jong, best known for her novels starting with Fear of Flying, is a poet of long standing and of renown. When the squib in the Book Review of The New York Times mentioned that her latest book of verse dealt in part with astrophysics, I took a look.

Indeed, one of her poems, “Oracle of Light,” deals with the European Space Agency’s lander Philae on a comet. “We are a flying island/that the Little Prince loved,/ a seeder of science,/ a seer of stars & planets,/ An oracle of light.” We read about this “unanchored/spacecraft/ among the stars.” 

Later on, we learn that “We stole the moon from Venus./ That’s how love came to our blue planet./ Gravity rules us & love.” The poem proceeds with good science and good mythology.

And we also learn about important theoretical physics: string theory. In “Visible/Invisible,” she writes “Some say the world is made of tiny strings….” “Some say that parallel universes…/ vibrate in the air.” “Oh let us make/ the invisible visible/ if only to prove our poetry.” (I wish she had spelled “minuscule” correctly in the fourth stanza.)

Scientists can enjoy the poetry, and I hope that others enjoy the bits of science.

Her publisher, Red Hen Press in Pasadena, California, has also published, in 2017, an unusual illustrated version of a book of poetry by MIT scientist/humanities professor Alan Lightman, from ten years ago. In Song of Two Worlds, the publisher presents a new version of the personal-journey poem by Lightman (well known for his Einstein’s Dreams novel and other work on the overlap of science and humanities, overcoming C. P. Snow’s two-culture cleft) with drawings offered by a reader of the original publication: Derek Dominic D’Souza.  “Believer in methods of science, the meters and grams,/ Finder of Fermat’s ‘least time’ before Fermat,/ Practitioner of ‘Galilean experiments’ before Galileo/…Show me your faith.” Later “Sail apart as the cosmos expands/And the density dwindles to nothing,/ The stars spend their energies,/ Light fades and dims,/ And the galaxies ghost ships/Adrift on an infinite sea.” At $17.95, another book worth reading and pondering.

Astronomer and author Jay M. Pasachoff is the director of the Hopkins Observatory and Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. He is a Visitor at the Carnegie Observatories. Williams College is home to the Gamma of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.